I hung some prayer flags across the porch today and they reminded me of Tibet, as they always do. They remind me of a different me, of a different life, of a trip I took almost 10 years ago, a trip that changed me, like trips tend to do.
Part II: Getting to Lhasa
I can’t remember now how I came across the information I needed to obtain a visa for Tibet. I remember only the small square of paper that had the address and building description scrawled on it in red biro. I found a taxi, gave him the piece of paper, and off we went.
When the driver dropped me off I realized immediately, with a sense of urgency and a sinking feeling in my stomach that I didn’t seem to be anywhere that looked remotely like somewhere you would go for a visa, and I was a girl all alone. Idiot, I thought, for the millionth time since getting on the ferry in South Korea the week before. So there I was, all alone, with nothing to do but try to figure out this visa, so that’s what I did.
I walked in the direction that the taxi driver waved to, paying close attention to the buildings and checking my piece of paper regularly for reference. When I found the building that matched the description my stomach sank a little bit more. It looked (and smelled) abandoned. There was no-one in sight. The hallways were full of doors that opened into unused offices. A desk here, a filing cabinet there, most covered with grimy dust and none that looked to have been used any time in the recent past. I started to worry that a terrible mistake had been made. Or, worse, that this was a scam. But then there was an office with a man in it. And he had, in his smoke filled room, the piece of paper that would grant me passage to the rooftop of the world.
Booking my train ticket to Lhasa was not as easy as booking a train ticket should have been, although I suppose it was somewhat less frightening than obtaining my visa. When I walked into the ticket office it was full of people. The ticket desk lined one wall and was protected by a clear barrier as ticket desks tend to be. None of the signs were in English and I had no idea what line I needed to be in so I just chose one and I waited. When I got to the desk I pushed the mini Mandarin phrase book from my survival kit through the small window in the protective barrier and pointed to the sentence that said I wanted to buy a train ticket. A kind lady at my hostel had added some characters to the page that communicated that I wanted a seat to Lhasa. The lady at the ticket counter pointed to her left, my right, so I joined another line and repeated the process until I found someone who would sell me the fare that I needed.
The person who sold me my ticket spoke English. He tried to convince me to get a sleeper carriage – the trip was 3 days and 3 nights – but I was a budget traveler, and since I find it easy to sleep on public transport I reasoned that the extra money it would cost me for a sleeper would be better spent elsewhere on my trip. Three days and nights is a long time on a train, though. Add to that the lack of security when you’re in a big carriage with all the locals (most of who were men, few who had all their teeth) and it wasn’t long before I started to regret my decision. People piled into the train in a never ending stream. Seats filled and everywhere there wasn’t a person there was someone’s stuff. I had heard stories about people’s bags being stolen off trains and advice was to keep your eye on your belongings, but how you’re meant to keep your eye on your stuff for three whole days and nights I did not know. Especially when people are coming and going in an endless stream and there is stuff everywhere. But I figured there wasn’t much I could do about it and it was too late to change my ticket and I wanted to go to Tibet and if someone took my pack oh well – all it had inside it was some matches and spare shoelaces and my t-shirt with a picture of a dog smoking a pipe on it.
The trip was spectacular from beginning to end.
I wrote about the men sitting around me, their faces deeply creased and hardened, with hands that looked like they wouldn’t come clean no matter how many times you washed them, the marks of hard work etched in their skin telling tales of generations. I returned their smiles, but declined the snacks they offered me – pigs ears and chicken feet and pickled eggs. I stared out the window for hours and hours and hours at huge expanses of land unlike any I’d seen before; it make me feel small in a way I’d never experienced, but at the same time incredibly connected and alive, like my heart was on fire. It was the first time I’d ever felt such an incredible lack of vocabulary to illustrate what I was seeing and describe how I was feeling. All the words I knew were, quite simply, inadequate. So I stopped trying to write and I just sat and stared out the window feeling small but alive with a burning heart.
I noticed the people getting on and off the train, their skin darkening and hardening the further west we moved. As we neared Tibet clothes became heavier and brighter, woven fabric decorated with coral and turquoise and silver and bronze. Some people carried small music boxes inside their long coats and I would close my eyes and let the melodies carry me away.
By the time we reached the final destination my carriage was so full of the sounds and smells of Tibet that if felt like I’d been there for hours.
Tibet was a smorgasbord for the senses. Melodies and chants rang through the streets, sweet smoky incense was thick in the air, and oh, the colour. Everything was so, so vivid. Small narrow buildings, bustling streets, and mountains all around. But this is not what has stuck with me. Tibet was special not because of what I did and what I saw, but because of how it made me feel while I was there. It felt like I had come home. My heart felt full and open. I felt vibrant and alive. I felt connected in a way that I was unfamiliar with. I felt complete. I felt totally present. I felt untouchable, but held by the world. I felt a deep sense of knowing that everything was going to be ok.
I hung my prayer flags today and I was reminded of the girl who got on that boat 9 years ago, and the girl who got off the train at the other end. I was reminded of the feeling of being there, the markets and the mountains, the sounds and the smells and the colour. My flags are new, purchased for 5 bucks at a shop in Australia that sells incense and tie dyed clothing. These are not the flags I carried home with me. These flags have probably never even been to Tibet – though I’d be surprised if they weren’t “made in China”. No, these are not the flags I bought on that trip, but I can still feel every prayer that attached itself to a breeze and passed through the miles of flags that wove themselves through Lhasa. I look at my flags and I feel like I did when I stood beneath that big blue sky, surrounded by snow covered mountains, a world away from this beautiful life I live on an island in the middle of the sea.
I look at my flags and I can’t help but be totally amazed by where our journeys lead us.